India should reopen its embassy in Kabul, and reengage with Afghanistan and its “de facto government”, says former President Hamid Karzai, one of the few Afghan leaders who chose to stay back despite the Taliban takeover of the country. Mr. Karzai tells The Hindu that Ukraine must learn from Afghanistan’s lessons, and not allow big powers to play a proxy war in its country.
How concerned should the world at present be about the situation in Afghanistan more than six months after the Taliban took over?
There is definitely an economic situation, there is definitely a hardship, there is definitely much lesser income coming to the Afghan people. The reasons are clear: the closure of banking interactions between the Afghan banks and the foreign banks, the fact that hundreds of thousands of Afghans have left the country and among them, some very, very educated Afghans, the fact of the massive change that occurred, and before that the drought that affected Afghanistan. We hope things will ease a bit, there’s the United Nations programme of assistance to the Afghan people, there is also the rest of the world helping, there is this immensely kind assistance from India coming to Afghanistan in terms of medical supplies and other necessities, especially the wheat that India has sent Afghanistan. I want to emphasise my gratitude to India and to the people of India. So we hope that the situation will be ameliorated slowly, slowly as we move on, especially that the U.S. government has now issued licences to international banks for linking and working with Afghan banking sector.
Are you worried that the Ukraine war is taking away completely from Afghanistan and Afghanistan’s problems?
Absolutely. The tragedy in Ukraine has taken away attention from Afghanistan. We still keep receiving the assistance that was promised to Afghanistan, the engagement that was there is carrying on. But in terms of the larger international attention to the Afghan people and the situation here, that has decreased as a consequence of the conflict in Ukraine.
Look, we are ourselves a war–devastated country, a conflict–devastated country. So, while we understand Russia’s security concerns, we as a war–devastated country, fully and deeply commiserate with the people of Ukraine for the sufferings that they are going through, and we wish them peace and stability as soon as possible. Afghanistan has gained a lot of experience… countries like us, Afghanistan and Ukraine, we should not get involved in big power games. The consequence of that is always that we get stepped over. And I hope the Ukrainian leadership will recognise by now the mistakes made and correct this.
You’re drawing parallels between Ukraine and Afghanistan when it comes to the big power games. Many have warned that with its occupation or continuing invasion of Ukraine, Russia could face another version of what it had attempted in Afghanistan in 1979. Would you agree?
There is already talk of mercenaries and foreign fighters coming from the rest of the world to Ukraine. In Afghanistan, some mercenaries came to our country. And the consequence of those coming from abroad, just like al–Qaeda and Osama bin Laden and the rest of them, you saw the consequences of that for Afghanistan. If I were Ukrainian, if I were making decisions in Ukraine, I would by all means, stop the arrival of foreign mercenaries to my country, keeping Afghanistan’s tragic experience in mind. We’re suffering from that till today.
The money that the United States seized from Afghanistan, the Afghan assets in the U.S. banks. One reason given was that. So that should be a lesson that the Ukrainians should learn from and walk away from these extremely dangerous games that others may play on their soil.
If I could ask now about the situation in Kabul. Six months after the Taliban seized power, do you feel that with no political alternative in sight, the Taliban government is being normalised?
As for the functioning of the of the caretaker government, it’s a de facto government. It’s there, it’s working and international communities dealing with it as such. We were happy that the conflict ended in Afghanistan. We were very happy that young people dying on both sides of the conflict is no longer seen in our country, that there is an end to conflict. We would like this end to conflict to mature into complete peace for Afghanistan, to mature into durable peace for Afghanistan. This takes the initiative of the current interim administration, caretaker administration of the Taliban to approach all other Afghans who for whatever reason may be unhappy with the situation, to bring them together to Afghan decision–making on the issues that are important nationally for our people.
There are three ways possible in Afghanistan for that: one is an election, the other is a referendum. If these are not possible, then we have that extremely strong and old Afghan tradition of the Loya Jirga that can provide legitimacy, that can provide solutions, that can provide advice. So my advice strongly is that the country should go through a process of meetings and consultations among Afghans on issues that are important for us, and then taking matters to the approval of the Afghan Loya Jirga. That will set the course towards a more normal, more durable peace for our country.
You’re suggesting a more democratic process. But the Taliban hasn’t kept one promise yet, in terms of building a more inclusive government, in terms of recognising the space for minorities… Even a promise to send girls back to school across the country in March has not yet not yet been kept on the ground. Do you think the rest of the world should give the Taliban government any kind of recognition unless these promises are met?
It is more important for Afghanistan and the internal stability and peace in Afghanistan to go through a process of legitimisation that will also provide a foundation and a strong reason for the international community to come with recognition. So we need to do things for our own sake. Whether the international community or foreign governments come to recognise the government or not, we need to take action within our country through a consultative process.
On the issue of education for girls, this is an extremely important demand of the Afghan people and the need of the Afghan people like it is the need in every other society in the world. Universities have reopened all over the country and girls have gone back to classes. We are looking forward to the schools opening up and the Afghan girls returning to their classrooms from grade one to grade 12. And I’m fairly confident that that will happen.
That is certainly an ideal situation. But what if the Taliban doesn’t make good on its promises?
We, myself and the chairman of the Peace Council Dr. Abdullah, have had fairly considerable interactions on the issue of broadening the government, from the very beginning with the leadership of the Taliban. The two of us have written a letter in this regard to the Taliban leadership, to the current government’s leadership, suggesting an intra– Afghan dialogue in the form and the importance of Loya Jirga to legitimise whatever processes that we agree on. Whatever arrangements that we agree on, the Taliban are also Afghans, they belong to this country, just like we all belong to this country. Matters first must be internally addressed.
And then the rest of it is for us to handle relations with neighbours and relations with the rest of the world. And this brings us to India. I hope that India will send back its embassy to Kabul when it’s possible and hoping it will begin to re–engage with Afghanistan as soon as possible. And the assistance that India had sent was received very well by the Afghan people. So we need to go back and re–establish relations with our friends as well, and neighbours as well.
You’re asking for India to reengage with this particular situation in Afghanistan with the government as we see it in Afghanistan. But the Indian government is not reopening the embassy at this juncture. We don’t see them reopening visas for Afghans, many students in Afghanistan are unable to come back to India and complete their education. Are you disappointed that India hasn’t played a bigger role?
I’m very much yes disappointed that India has not played a bigger role. When India withdrew its diplomatic staff from Afghanistan, I advised them not to do that, that they should stay like Russia stayed, like China has stayed, like Iran, Pakistan and others have stayed. India should have stayed and engaged with the Afghan people. When we stay in a country it’s not entirely to engage with the government of the country, there are also people there. There’s also a country, there is also a history that we have together.
On the issue of scholarships and Afghan students, [the students] came to see me. At least 2,000 or more of them need to go back to their studies in India, and I would very much wish that those students are issued visas for them to return to India. Under the current circumstances where Afghanistan’s need for education is massive, India can play a significantly important role because of the goodwill that exists in the Afghan people for India. India is seen as a great historic friend and that historic friendship must be continued.
Given the risks to every Indian in Afghanistan, how could the embassy have stayed?
That’s not my impression, it is the other way around.. My impression is that the current government authorities wanted India to stay in Afghanistan and [even now] seek India to return to Afghanistan. We have had conversations about this with the caretaker administration. And the issue of India and the vision of India to Afghanistan as an embassy as a diplomatic mission, as a friend for Afghanistan, has been welcomed and has been sought.
You’re saying that Taliban would like India to stay in and they would give them those kinds of security guarantees?
Do you have any indication that Pakistan has changed its role in any way, that Pakistan is no longer interfering in Afghanistan’s affairs?
Well, I hope that is the case. I’ve referred to Pakistan as a neighbour, a brotherly country. My advice to Pakistan is the same today: we the Afghan people want to live in peace, and civility and good relations with you. But we asked you to engage with us in a civilised way, away from the use of extremism or all other violent methods of exerting influence in Afghanistan. Please initiate a civilised form of relationship with Afghanistan, and we will respond to that positively as a people, as a nation.
But at present, do you see a shift in the Pakistani position? Do they still control what happens inside Kabul?
No, of course, we are Afghans here and of course, we should make our own decisions. But whether Pakistan has changed his attitude towards Afghanistan, I can’t confirm that. That’s why I repeat my statement of seeking a civilised relationship.
On August 15 last year, you and Dr. Abdullah Abdullah took a decision: that you wouldn’t leave Kabul like President Ghani, Vice–President Saleh and so many other leaders had to for various reasons. Was that risk worth it? Or do you in hindsight, think maybe you could have made a different choice?
No, I would have never made a different choice. This is our country, we will not run away from our country when it is in difficulty. We must stay and be ready to help in our in any way that we can as the citizens and I think I’m very happy for the decision that I made. If I’m confronted with the same situation, I would do the same thing again.
You put out a video about how you wanted to build an Afghanistan that your daughters could grow up in. Did you feel that there was a threat to you, to your family ?
That day was full of uncertainties. The government had run away. I tried to contact various officials of the government. None of them were there. And it was after I learned that the government had completely left the population alone, and the situation had become extremely tense and uncertain… anything could happen to anyone in the country especially in the capital, that I then stood up and asked the people to remain in their homes, and to remain calm and asked the Taliban to protect lives and property where they were in charge and the government soldiers to protect the lives and property of their fellow citizens where they were in charge.